It was 5 am and I was fast asleep, snug under a light quilt that protected me from the air conditioning. There was a jerk and the bed shook as my aunt Chaakli sat bolt upright. She mumbled something about oversleeping and swung her legs by the side of the bed like an Olympic pole vaulter. She went around the bed and peered inside my mosquito net and whispered “Go back to sleep, it is too early!” Then she rushed out gently closing the bedroom door behind her. I tried to go back to sleep. But sleep had fled the room like Chaakli. I woke up and rubbed my eyes to the clanging of vessels in the big kitchen downstairs.
“Hysterectomy drains your energy Anjali” said my aunt Chaakli (Jacqueline) walking in with a steaming cup of tea. Chaakli was one of my favorite grand aunts. She is not that old, she was the youngest of a brood of 14 kids, the eldest being my grandmother. She is in fact as old as my mom, and mom and aunt were and are best friends to this day. Kerala families of yesteryears were like that. For instance, my Dad and his uncle (his dad’s youngest brother) were firm friends and even studied together in the same class, till my Dad overtook him. But they remained best friends even as my Dad reached the 10th standard and Mathai remained languid, in the 7th. They are best friends even now, even though Uncle is still in the 10th standard and my Dad finished college years ago. Don’t get me wrong. Mathai does not go to school now. He spent many a fruitful years bunking the 10th standard, till the kindly priest Father Yohannan, who was the long suffering principal of the school, gave him a transfer certificate (TC) and advised him to move out.
But before Mathai moved out of the St Paul’s School, Fr. Yohannan had to face the wrath of Mathai’s mother Lillykutty. Lillykutty was Fr Yohannan’s eldest sister. She was about 19 years older than him and was married before Fr. Yohannan was born. Yohannan and his nephew Patrose (Mathai’s eldest brother) were born on the same day though in different hospitals as his mother Elikutty went to her mother’s house for delivery as per the customs. So did his sister Lilykutty. His father’s elder sister Rosakutty attended to the neo natal duties of Lillykutty in the absence of Elikutty.
Lillykutty was a ‘righteous woman’ who went to church regularly and accepted her good fortunes as a reward from the good Lord and misfortunes as the devils work which was to be dealt severely and rather personally. She was in Yohannan’s office before he could say “Shut the door and barricade it” to his faithful assistant. Her diminutive husband Paulose was in tow. He had no choice. “Sit down” barked Lillykutty to Paulose. Paulose obeyed timidly. He looked at Fr. Yohannan with pitying eyes. He knew Yohannan was screwed.
Yohannan squirmed in his seat as Lillykutty peered at him like a snake peering at the mouse it was contemplating for dinner. Fr. Yohannan wiped the sweat off his forehead and tried reading the teacher’s register at the same time, but Lillykutty’s acute gaze had him sweating under his collar like the mouse that knows it is dinner. He tired drinking some water, spilled most of it down the front of his shirt and the rest on the table.
“Yohanna!!” hissed Lillykutty narrowing her eyes till they were tiny slits. Fr Yohannan paled and looked at her like the aforementioned rat facing the snake. “You are my youngest brother. So I will restrain myself today. But what you did was not good. Rusticating your own nephew…” she paused for dramatic effect. “…your own flesh and blood because he got a few marks short is a crime against your family, against God, against St Mathew after whom he is named and also Mathai’s father’s family who are no good but hurt by this act of yours!!!” she finished wheezing. Paulose wisely kept his mouth shut. Lillykutty had a touch of the asthma and the doctor had advised her against talking too much. But that didn’t prevent her from talking. In her family, she said, only the women talked. The men should shut the eff up if they wanted children to carry on the family name.
Yohannan looked at her rather alarmed. The last time she had a wheezing attack, he had to give Mathai a double promotion. This was soon after he spent four years in class 8. Yohannan knew he could do scant against the SSLC board even though the education minister was his relation from his mother’s side twice removed.
“Lillykutty, Mathai got an average of 28 marks in his exams. The passing marks is 35! There is nothing I could do even though most of the teachers here are our relations. You know how relations are. They talk!” wailed Fr Yohannan.
“You cannot give your own nephew, your own flesh and blood, seven marks!!!” screeched Lillykutty. To cut a long story short, it was decided to put Mathai into a polytechnic run by another order of priests. Lillykutty’s fourth brother was a priest in that order and that is how Mathai moved out of St. Paul’s and went onto the polytechnic where he really enjoyed himself and went onto becomes one of the largest car showroom owners of the region. Now you must be thinking that Mathai had found his calling and passed the polytechnic exam with flying colors and went onto become a car mechanic and graduated to a car showroom right? Wrong! He found a fellow laggard at the polytechnic to bunk classes and go to the movies with, fell in love with his sister and married her after eloping soon after which her very rich dad passed away leaving his entire property to his laggard son and runaway daughter. Mathai put the money to good use and the rest is history. Mathai and Osama were made for each other. Both had failed their way to the 10th where they got stuck due to the board exams which their teachers couldn’t clear for them. It was a disappointing end to a successful academic run.
Back to Chaakli or as the English would call her, “Jacqueline”. Chaakli was wrestling with a giant jackfruit. She chopped it open with one swift move of a cleaver, ripped the two sides apart and proceeded to remove the raw jackfruit dropping them into a wicker basket like a well oiled Jackfruit plucking machine. Then she removed the seeds from the jackfruit, picked up two coconuts and went onto break them with the blunt end of the cleaver. She then dragged the rather large coconut grater towards her and sat down to grate the coconut with the speed of a motorized grater. I felt tired just looking at her.
“You like pacha chakka erissery no!” she said indulgently. I did like Pacha chakka erissery (raw jackfruit curry), but the sheer effort it took to make, made me feel bad. But before I could say “what the eff” Chaakli was lugging two coconut fronds into the back yard and preparing a roaring fire. “You have to take some cashew nuts with you when you go back. These are organic.” she yelled over the roaring fire. Before long she had the erissery cooking away and Chaakli was walking purposefully towards a flock of chickens. She caught one effortlessly and I looked away while she prepared the chicken for cooking.
“This is healthy meat, not your antibiotic and chemically grown chickens you know.” I looked at her warily. What would she do next I wondered. The cattle and the goats were at the meadow far away from the house I noted thankfully.
“The better way of eating the erissery is with beef curry” said Chaakli talking no one in particular. I looked at the cattle grazing peacefully and cringed. She picked up the cleaver and before I could say “Nooo” she put it down and said. “But we will settle for chicken curry today. You uncle has not time to go to the beef shop. I smile in relief, my face white.
Chaakli disappeared and shortly I heard noises in the attic. Then I saw her climbing down the wooden ladder carrying a giant Uruli, a kind of a heavy brass wok used in Kerala homes.
Very soon she was grinding masala for the chicken curry on the heavy grinding stone while I looked on in horror. The grinding stone looked like it weighed a ton at least. While she ground the masala she chattered on. “Look at me Anjali; I cannot do half the work I used to do before my operation”. I flinched at the thought. She had done more work in two hours than an average head load worker in K R Market would do in a day.
“Why don’t you let Annakutty help you?” I asked her foolishly.
“She is useless!! She is only good for cutting vegetables.” scoffed Chaakli as she macerated the masala into a fine paste. Annakutty stuck her tongue out at Chaakli who was too busy grinding to notice. Annakutty lived in the nearby village. He dad was a farm worker with Chaakli’s family for generations. She helped out in the house whenever possible, getting a princely sum of Rs. 300 per day for basically doing nothing while Chaakli did most of the work by herself complaining ““Hysterectomy drains your energy, I cannot work the way I used to.”
Annakutty once confessed to me that she lost a lot of weight just watching Chaakli work. “I got so tired of watching her that I became thin! My mother came and chided Chaakli for giving me too much work!”
“Then what happened Annakutty?” I asked. “Then she sat down and watched Chaakli ammayi work and scolded me for not helping her out.” She pouted.
As I slept off the delicious jackfruit curry and the twenty other side dishes Chaakli had made to go with it and a delectable ada pradhaman to wash all that down, I heard a heavy banging. Walking out of the house I was shocked to see Chaakli washing what looked like a double bed sheet. “Why don’t you put that into the washing machine aunty” I asked.
“No power, besides these are the bed sheets Sarah bought me from England. You need to wash it carefully,” She said hitting the stone with the bed sheets like she was trying to scare the devil out of it. The washing stone did indeed look like it had seen better days. As in days when Uncle would put the clothes in the washing machine surreptitiously before aunty found them and gave them a hiding on the washing stone. Looking at the state of the stone, this was not too often.
“What do you want for tea!” she enquired without looking up from her grisly chore. It was a rhetorical question. I knew that she had been busy cooking while I snoozed. Unlike normal people in the neighborhood, who would lope down to the village bakery for evening tea essentials, Chaakli would have slaved over the stove preparing the banquet herself.
I walked over to the dining table laden with coffee, tea and a dozen snacks that Chaakli had prepared because ‘Hysterectomy had rained her off energy or she would made a least a decent 20’. The lunch rumbled in my stomach and I looked despondently at the table groaning under the load. Uncle came in and chuckled at my sight.
He swiftly removed some snacks from each plate and wrapped it in a newspaper and shoved it onto the seat of chair next to him. Aunty who was running to and fro from the kitchen did not notice. She was too busy roasting the coffee beans and grinding them in the mixie before adding them to the percolator and topping that with hot boiling water, to slowly release its precious load of aromatic coffee decoction. The result was the most delicious coffee in the world. The small coffee patch beside the house was planted by my grandmother. The small patch which was about an acre produced some outstanding coffee of an unknown type. Every year during the coffee season, the coffee beans would be plucked, dried and then stored for the family’s use. My mom got a tin every year and it was used for special occasions. The coffee was mesmerizing. It sort of put you into a trance as you gulped one delicious draught after draught. The trance lingered for a long while after the cup was empty of is ambrosial contents.
In the late evening, uncle bought out his jeep. The jeep had seen better days. It was an old army junk that uncle had bought in an auction ostensibly to go hunting. Unfortunately, every now and then the jeep let out a lusty fart from its tired old engines scaring animals away. Uncle who is hard of hearing never understood why he had never shot an animal since 1965 when he bought the jeep. Aunty was thankful that he had never had and would never will as long as he had this jeep as he had no concept of Wildlife Protection Laws. As we drove into the jungle amidst loud farts and the rattle and shakes of the jeep, a herd of deer ran startled into the bushes. Uncle cursed under his breath. “I am getting old Anjali or these fellows would be dinner!” He exclaimed exasperatedly. I looked at the magnificent stag with his beautiful antlers and remembered the wild rooster uncle had once bought from a poacher and claimed to be his own kill. It took aunty over four hours to cook and about one hour for the diners to chew and spit out when they realized what they were eating. But the gravy was delicious and drowned out the guilt of eating a wild fowl. I thanked my lucky stars that the stag would never end up as dinner. Aunty’s parting shot as we farted err drove away was “Don’t you dare bring back any animals for me to cook!”
Late in the night we drove back home from the “hunting expedition”, with uncle taking large swigs of some fine scotch from a hip flask while I drove the jaunty jalopy over the mud roads of the forest, I couldn’t believe that the man had not shot an animal, not even a wild boar in the last 25 years or so. I remember my dad telling me that he was a good marksman.
“So what’s the deal Uncle?” I enquired. “How come you never shot an animal?”
He took a long thoughtful swig from the flask, wiped his face with sleeve of his Khaki shirt and said “Now what do I say Anjali. I gave up hunting years ago, when they passed the blasted Wildlife Act. And I am happy that they did too. What’s the point in stalking and hunting a wild boar and not getting a shot when all you need to do is drive one towards your aunt’s prized vegetable garden?”
Apparently, the last time one of them wild boars ransacked my aunts vegetable patch, she took the cleaver and the family had pork roast, pork curry, pork pickle and pork dry fry for the next 6 month till they were gagging. She was that hopping mad.
“And was this after her hysterectomy or before?” I asked dryly.
“After the operation or she would have killed the rest of the herd too!! There were eight of them!” he exclaimed.
“You are kidding me right?’ I gasped.
“No, I am not kidding. There were eight!! But what to do!” He imitated aunty. “Hysterectomy drains your energy Anjali or I would have killed all of them!”
I don’t remember what was more difficult that night, trying to manage the rattling jeep while ensuring that my uncle who was rolling on the floor laughing did not fall of the jeep or trying not to giggle hysterically while we farted our way home.